Indian lugist Shiva Keshavan knows it’s tough to pursue winter sports in a country sold on cricket. But his fierce determination to succeed has taken him places.
Keshavan, who hails from the tropical southern state of Kerala, hopes to bring India fame in a sport unfamiliar to most of his countrymen when he competes in the Winter Olympics in Vancouver next year.
It will be Keshavan’s fourth Olympics and this time he will be suitably geared.
When Keshavan went for his first Olympics in Nagano, Japan in 1998 as a 16-year-old, he competed with a borrowed sled, an oversized jacket and ill-fitting shoes.
“My path has been full of hurdles,” Keshavan said. “I have done everything on my own, be it organizing training, travel or doing the rounds of officialdom for support.”
“There is little awareness for my sport in India. But things are changing for the better and I see a winter sports movement waiting to happen,” he said.
Keshavan, who finished 25th at the Turin Olympics in 2006, is glad to have qualified early for Vancouver.
“I may not win a medal in Vancouver, but I take a lot of satisfaction from the fact that I have paved the path for the new generation of athletes who want to make a name in winter sports,” the 27 year-old said.
Keshavan, whose love for the luge grew while at the University of Florence in Italy, now lives in the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, the home of winter sports in the country.
“I was offered Italian citizenship, but I refused because I am an Indian and want to spend my life here. So what if they don’t know what a luge is,” he said.
Recognition has been hard to come by in India and Keshavan almost gave up in 2006 when he failed to get support from the government or the Indian Amateur Luge Association (IALA).
“It was a tough time, full of uncertainties. Then I decided to take things in my own hands and set off for training at a small camp in the Himalayas,” Keshavan said.
“Finally a new administration took over the reins of the IALA in 2008 and they realized they had some serious catching up to do. They are quite keen to promote winter sports,” he said.
Keshavan knows it will take a long time before world-class facilities come to India.
“There are only three venues for skiing and luge in India and just one of them has the lift,” he said. “This means we have to walk uphill all the time, which is not easy, before sliding down. We can only do that five times a day at the most.”
Keshavan dreams of corporate support for his sport one day.
“Cricket is big in India, but that does not mean everyone must only play cricket,” he said.